OGDEN — Right around the time Janice Bukey was appointed principal at Bonneville Elementary School, the school was placed in a turnaround program for low-performing schools.
She had experience working in education but it was her first gig as a principal in 2015, and she knew she had some work ahead of her. The school earned an F that year from the state based predominantly on low test scores.
“We took the approach of if you’re a marathon runner, you couldn’t just go into the marathon on Memorial Day and expect to successfully complete the race,” Bukey said. “You’ve got to train. So what we did day after day was training.”
The training paid off because in October, the school successfully exited the state’s turnaround program having earned a C in 2017.
Shauntelle Cota came on as the school’s principal this year and has continued working to improve the school through a culture of mindfulness and growth.
“I’m in the business of producing healthy learners and healthy citizens,” she said.
As Ogden School District Superintendent Richard Nye explained at an October board meeting, Bonneville was in the bottom 3 percent of schools across the state in 2015. These schools were placed in a state-funded school turnaround program where they would be given additional resources for three years in an effort to improve scores a state assessment called the Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence, or SAGE.
Other factors went into state-assigned grades including growth, where cohorts of students are compared to similar students in other parts of the state.
“We had lots of room to grow and that first year,” Bukey said.
Bukey used data points to drive instruction methods and changed the school’s culture. She asked her teachers to raise the bar on what they thought their students could achieve and also made a master schedule for the school. She also tried to make the SAGE testing environment more friendly with positive posters and better atmosphere.
Instructors also participated in the Utah Assessment to Achievement program where they learned how to make the school run smoothly. Bukey said it all might sound basic, but the little tweaks helped a lot. For example, they learned how to use meeting agendas more efficiently. Bukey also implemented a policy of not holding an assembly unless it was tied to core content.
“That doesn’t mean we eliminated fun,” she said. “Every teacher has their own way of making learning engaging.”
Bukey said when she first arrived at the Spanish dual language school she saw students being sent to the hallway or the office for misbehaving. The Positive Intervention Behavior Support system was implemented with the aim of keeping students in the classroom, learning everything they could.
Bukey also started collecting student engagement data which meant that rather than watching teachers in the classroom, she watched the students. In doing this, they were able to figure out what percentage of the class was paying attention and to what degree.
“We realized in doing that there was a lot of down time, so we focused on regaining lost minutes in a day,” Bukey said. “Everything from how we transition from classroom to recess to sharpening pencils. We put classroom and school-wide systems in place.”
Change didn’t come easily for everyone. Bukey said some teachers never did get on board with the changes she wanted to make so there was some turnover during her time at the school. One teacher she now has a great working relationship with told her point blank she didn’t trust her.
“I said ‘I’m gonna ask you to take a leap of faith with me,’” Bukey said.
Bonneville also partnered with Education Direction, a consulting firm in Salt Lake City. The company assessed the school and came up with a plan to move forward and improve test scores, which Bukey said included many of the things the school had already started implementing, only a bit more manageable.
“In the beginning I tried to do too many things at once,” Bukey said.
Cota has brought her own brand to Bonneville with the hope of continuing what Bukey started. She asks her teachers to select five students they call “strategic learners” and focus solely on helping them improve before moving on to five others.
“These are the kiddos we know with the right intervention we can get them where they need to be,” Cota said.
The way Cota talks about school sounds a lot like yoga. Teachers, students and their families have access the Inner Explorer app where they can learn about mindfulness and the school is on it’s way to getting a mini certification through Mindfulschools.org. The Student of the Month program has been revamped and she’s very passionate about the new school slogan.
“It’s ‘way to grow’ not ‘way to go,’ because we’re always growing toward our goals,” Cota said. “We want a growth mindset even if they don’t do well on one test.”
Cota said whether it’s the concept of mindfulness, studying or testing, they work hard to scale it down to a level the students can understand and get excited about.
“We have a community that really wants to celebrate our students and the culture,” she said.
In the 2014-15 school year, Bonneville students tested at only 12 percent proficient in language arts, 14 percent proficient in math and 11 percent proficient in science according to Utah State Board of Education data. That year, the school earned a D.
Things have drastically improved. As of last school year, students tested at 42 percent proficient in language arts, 39 percent proficient in math and 47 percent proficient in science. The school earned a C.
In 2016, 14 of the 26 schools in Utah’s turnaround program increased test scores enough to warrant a full letter grade improvement. However, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the state changed the grading criteria that fall, only six did.
According to Standard-Examiner archives, this change impacted half of the schools in the Ogden School District. Bukey said it was particularly difficult at Bonneville because she wanted the efforts of her teachers to be validated.
“In the end we had a lot to celebrate but we also had lots of work to do so we just didn’t get too caught up in that,” she said.
This year the state has taken a hiatus on assigning grades to Utah schools and the SAGE test is no longer being given, replaced by a test called RISE for students in grades three through eight.
Bukey said she supports the state’s efforts to improve schools and told herself early on the inconsistencies and nuances of the system didn’t matter.
“What matters is we’re doing good by kids, regardless of what the state says,” she said.
According to a USBE press release, 18 of the 26 schools originally named to the school turnaround program completed it successfully. Five other schools qualified for an extension, two will remain in the program and one school closed.